The Science of Super Powers

Sir_Humphry_Davy,_Bt_by_Thomas_Phillips

Davy: Putting the “umph” into Humphry

Man, in what is called a state of nature, is a creature of almost pure sensation. Called into activity only by positive wants, his life is passed either in satisfying the cravings of the common appetites, or in apathy, or in slumber. Living only in moments, he calculates but little on futurity. He has no vivid feelings of hope, or thoughts of permanent and powerful action. And, unable to discover causes, he is either harassed by superstitious dreams, or quietly and passively submitted to the mercy of nature and the elements. How different is man informed through the beneficence of the Deity, by science, and the arts! Knowing his wants, and being able to provide for them, he is capable of anticipating future enjoyments, and of connecting hope with an infinite variety of ideas. He is in some measure independent of chance or accident for his pleasures. Science has given to him an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it has bestowed upon him powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to change and modify the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.

Sir Humphry Davy
Discourse, Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802)

Five things your company can learn from the legacy of Steve Jobs

steve jobs

As there must be close to a zillion proper reviews out there already of Walter Issacson’s mammoth biography of Steve Jobs, so I’m not going to even bother doing that here. Instead what I’m going to do is pull out a few key thoughts about what your average company might learn from the world’s number one brand.

1. Apple’s Three Key Principles

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When the angel investor Mike Markkula presented the first real cheque to the fledging Apple Computing company to get things kick started, it made Steve Jobs a happy man. But the cheque was only part of the Markkula deal. What Jobs found even more useful were his three principles of what makes a good company tick – something Steve took onboard and put at the core of the Apple business philosophy.

In short these are:

  • Focus – in order to do a good job on the things a company decides to do, it must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities
  • Impute – a company needs to “impute” its philosophy by conveying its values in everything it does, from the products to the packaging to the marketing. In other words: things presented in a slipshod manner will be perceived as slipshod; it is no good having great, high-quality products with brilliant design if they are not presented to the customer in a professional and creative way
  •  Empathy – truly understand the needs of the customer

Steve took these principles and gave them his own specific spin.

He was able to combine an eye for exacting detail and for seeing the big picture at the same time. So from the big picture perspective, when Jobs returned to Apple to save it from the brink of disaster, he was immediately able to strip back production from hundreds of confusing and competing offers to just four. That’s right. Four! Now that’s how to focus…

From the other perspective, Jobs’ eye for obsessing over details was legendary, a trait he inherited from his mechanic / carpenter dad, who taught him that when building something you need to care about every aspect and detail, even when assembling the bits you can’t see at the back of a cupboard. Steve took this to the extreme, fussing over the arrangement of the microchips on the motherboard buried deep inside his computers – a detail none of his customers would ever see. This enabled him to control every aspect of his products – and hence to impute the trademark quality of the Apple brand into everything they did, including how the packing box looked on the shelf and felt when it was first opened. As T.S. Eliot noted, “there falls a shadow between conception and creation” – but not for Jobs. He realised that the execution of the idea was just as important as the inception.

Finally his genius enabled him to intuitively put these two aspects together in a way that appealed to people: he knew what people wanted even before they did themselves (Jobs came from the Henry Ford, “if I’d had listened to my customers I would have built a faster horse” school). It’s only a pity that his amazing empathy for his customers’ needs didn’t extend to his hapless employees…

So focus, impute and empathy. Now ask yourself for each of these three principles how well your company stacks up. If the answer is “not every well”, you might consider doing something about it.

2. Taking Marketing Seriously

You may think from the Henry Ford example above that Jobs didn’t take marketing seriously. You’d be dead wrong. In fact he took marketing so seriously that he dedicated EVERY Wednesday afternoon to a freewheeling, three hour meeting with his top agency, marketing and communications people to kick around messaging strategy. Now ask yourself: does my company do that? The answer is probably no. But fair’s fair, just about every company on the planet falls short in this regard. As Lee Clow said (the genius behind Apple’s “1984” ad and the “Think Different” campaign), “there’s not a CEO on the planet who deals with marketing the way Steve does”. But look what a difference it made!

3. Creativity

technology and liberal arts
Jobs was convinced that what made Apple super successful as a company were its people, and the fact Apple employees had what we might call a “hinterland”, i.e. people with other interests outside of their day job. All Apple employees were not just brilliant technologists, programmers or designers; they were failed writers, artists, musicians, film makers and photographers too. In other words not only were they good at what they did, they brought a whole host of liberal arts interests to the table as well. According to Jobs, this is what made Apple different to Microsoft, who employed brilliant technicians, but with little interest in anything else.

4. The power of simplicity

Jobs was a master presenter of his ideas. He was able to “impute” his philosophy in a personal way that really resonated with people. His “and one more thing…” – as he unveiled the next big thing to turn our lives upside down – became a common catchphrase in the tech world. But the key to this was his insistence on simplicity. Taken initially from his respect for the user-friendliness of the Atari “insert-quarter-destroy-aliens” games, Jobs respect for simplicity boiled down to his belief that simplicity was in fact the ultimate form of sophistication. But getting there isn’t simple – in fact for Jobs it takes creativity, hard work, determination and lots of hands-on personal engagement in the products. It worked. One critic remembers being amazed when, during a visit to South America, an illiterate six year old took his iPad from him and started flipping around it intuitively after just a couple of minutes use – something unthinkable with regard to most other IT devices.

5. Finally, how NOT to do it

Steve Jobs behaviour towards his friends, family and work colleagues was at times unfathomable. His tyrannical outbursts, off-the-scale temper tantrums, and weeping fits were described inside Apple as his “non-linear” moments. He had weird, compulsive diets (eating little but apples or carrots for weeks on end); developed and nurtured intimidation tactics including staring out opponents and using long silences; and he had a calculated and deliberately provocative stance about psychedelic drugs. So compared to his contemporary Bill Gates (who could these days be easily described as a leader with real “moral” authority), he does not stack up well. Unlike Gates, Jobs was never interested in philanthropy (although being super rich wasn’t cool either – Jobs said he was never interested in being “the richest man in the graveyard”). The core of Jobs problem personality is that he considered himself to be a kind of superhuman to whom the normal rules of behaviour simply did not apply (he ignored speed restrictions and refused to have a licence plate on his car to underline this point). All of this is of course problematic when considering Steve Jobs the man.

The legacy

In the end, what is most inspiring is the legacy, both in its breadth and its depth:

  • At Pixar, Jobs opened the door (with John Lasseter) to the world of digital animation with Toy Story
  • Apple Stores, which reinvented how a store can define a brand
  • The iPod, which redefined how we listen to music
  • The iTunes Store, which paved the way for paying for digital music in the wake of Napster and helped to save the music industry
  • The iPhone, which redefined the paradigm of a mobile phone and what it can do
  • The App Store, which spawned a whole new creative industry
  • The iPad, which launched tablet computing, and which offered a new way of consuming digital publishing for newspapers and magazines
  • The iCloud, which seamlessly synchs all of your devices
  • And Apple itself, arguably one of the most creative companies on the planet

Bill Gates is undoubtedly a better and more humane person, and a genius in his own right too; but Jobs, despite all his flaws, took creativity to a whole other level. His tragedy is that, as his old friends and colleagues testify in the book, he would doubtless have achieved the same results without recourse to his all too often terrible, humiliating and childish behaviour. Despite all that, whatever you think of Jobs the man, he certainly fulfilled his dream to leave a “dent” in the universe.